Until the late 1980s, “political correctness” was used exclusively within the left, and almost always ironically as a critique of excessive orthodoxy. In fact, some of the first people to organise against “political correctness” were a group of feminists who called themselves the Lesbian Sex Mafia. In 1982, they held a “Speakout on Politically Incorrect Sex” at a theatre in New York’s East Village – a rally against fellow feminists who had condemned pornography and BDSM. Over 400 women attended, many of them wearing leather and collars, brandishing nipple clamps and dildos. The writer and activist Mirtha Quintanales summed up the mood when she told the audience, “We need to have dialogues about S&M issues, not about what is ‘politically correct, politically incorrect’.”
By the end of the 1980s, Jeff Chang, the journalist and hip-hop critic, who has written extensively on race and social justice, recalls that the activists he knew then in the Bay Area used the phrase “in a jokey way – a way for one sectarian to dismiss another sectarian’s line”.
But soon enough, the term was rebranded by the right, who turned its meaning inside out. All of a sudden, instead of being a phrase that leftists used to check dogmatic tendencies within their movement, “political correctness” became a talking point for neoconservatives. They said that PC constituted a leftwing political programme that was seizing control of American universities and cultural institutions – and they were determined to stop it.